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On Winning the Nebula Award
by Robert J. Sawyer
Copyright © 1996 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.
Published in the Fall 1996 issue of NorthWords.
My life changed forever on Saturday, April 27, 1996, at 10:15 in
the evening. That's the moment at which Sheila Finch, the
designated presenter of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers
of America's Nebula Award for Best Novel of 1995, opened the
envelope and announced, "And the winner is Robert J. Sawyer, for
The Terminal Experiment."
Frankly, I was stunned at winning the "Academy Award" of SF.
When my name was called, I was sitting at the Analog table
in the ballroom aboard the HMS Queen Mary, moored off Long
Beach, California. We'd sat through a surprisingly good banquet
(choice of filet mignon, swordfish, or pasta primavera), then a
long, boring speech by a NASA scientist (you could tell it was
boring because even at the Analog table, where you'd
expect to find people particularly interested in the space
program, one by one each person gave up listening and instead
turned to reading the program book), and we'd applauded the
winners of the short story, novelette, and novella Nebula Awards
(Esther Friesner, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Elizabeth Hand,
respectively). Everything was being covered by a TV crew from
The Sci-Fi Channel.
On my right was my wife, Carolyn Clink; on my left, Dr. Stanley
Schmidt, the editor of Analog. Stan, who had serialized
The Terminal Experiment before its book publication,
grabbed my hand and started pumping furiously. "Let me be the
first to congratulate you!" Carolyn had to wait her turn . . .
I'd honestly thought I was going to lose. In many ways, the odds
were stacked against me. The Terminal Experiment, which
I'd written on spec without a contract, had turned out to be a
very difficult sell: many publishers were nervous about its
discussion of the abortion issue (for all its creative virtues,
SF in the United States is a business, and books have to sell in
the Bible Belt as well as in the North).
The Terminal Experiment ended up as a May 1995 mass-market
paperback original from HarperPrism, the only American publisher
willing to do the book as I had written it. All the other Nebula
nominees this year were hardcovers, a fact that gave them greater
apparent prestige (I had turned down a hardcover offer from
another publisher that had been contingent on my removing the
discussion of abortion from my book, something I refused to do).
Even worse: HarperPrism had sent out no advance galleys or
review copies of The Terminal Experiment, so the book,
although it had been getting rave reviews in Canada, had received
no reviews at all in the United States, even in the SF press.
Of the six finalists, four were published by Tor Books and, in
an effort to garner Nebula votes, Tor had sent free copies of all
four titles to every one of the 900+ active members of SFWA. The
other two nominated books mine, and Walter Jon Williams's
Metropolitan were both published by HarperPrism.
HarperPrism cooperated with Walter's agent in sending out copies
of his hardcover novel to voters. I, on the other hand, was no
longer a HarperPrism author, and they were doing nothing
whatsoever to enhance my chances of winning.
In previous years, Analog had sent voters copies of issues
containing nominated stories, including serials. This year,
though, in a cost-cutting move, Analog's publisher decided
not to send out the issues containing serial installments,
meaning I was the only nominee to have no publisher-sponsored
mailing of his novel. When I discovered this, on January 31,
1996, I told my wife my chances of winning had dropped to zero.
This was a view widely shared: according to one person who was
sitting at Tor's table during the Nebula banquet, Tor's staff
felt sure one of their four titles was bound to be the winner.
Still, in retrospect, perhaps I should have expected to
win. Even without publisher support, there had been
unprecedented grassroots enthusiasm for
The Terminal Experiment. See, getting nominated for a Nebula is a two-stage
process. First, you have to get on the Preliminary Ballot by
receiving at least ten signed, public recommendations from other
writers. Then all the works on the Preliminary Ballot (this year
it contained 22 novels) are voted on by the entire SFWA
membership, and the top five, plus one additional work chosen by
a jury, become the final nominees, which again are voted on by
the whole membership.
Well, prior to this year, the all-time record for number of
Nebula recommendations was 27 (which, as it happens, was set by
my 1994 novel End of an Era). But
The Terminal Experiment just kept getting more and more
1995 went on. Indeed, it broke SFWA's database when it exceeded
forty, the maximum number that could be recorded; the actual
tally, I'm told, was considerably higher. My next closest
competitor on the Preliminary Ballot this year had nineteen
recommendations, less than half what I did.
But having large numbers of recommendations usually doesn't
correlate with being the winner, or even getting on the Final
Ballot. The work with nineteen recommendations Catherine
Asaro's Primary Inversion didn't make it to the Final
Ballot; in its year,
End of an Era didn't make it, either.
Indeed, of the other books that did make it to the Final Ballot
this year, the number of recommendations only ranged from ten
(the minimum required) to fifteen.
The final nominees were announced online in the official SFWA
area on GEnie on the morning of February 21, 1996. Final Ballots
were mailed out immediately thereafter, and were due back on
April 3. Voter turnout was the highest percentage this decade,
with 344 out of 930 Final Ballots returned. No one except the
award administrators knew in advance who the winners were;
Carolyn and I flew out to California (at our own expense), hoping
for the best.
And then my name was called. Once Stan Schmidt released my hand,
I kissed my wife and made my way up to the podium to accept the
award: The Terminal Experiment had just become the
thirty-second book ever to win a Nebula Award, and I was the
twenty-sixth author in history (and the only native-born
Canadian) to take home a Best Novel Nebula. (Orson Scott Card,
Arthur C. Clarke, and Samuel R. Delany have each won two Best
Novel Nebulas, and Ursula K. Le Guin has won three, which is why
there are more award-winning books than there are award-winning
I began my speech, which was probably too long, by quipping that
the only man in the room happier than me was David Hartwell of
Tor Books, because we'd just concluded a new two-book hardcover
deal three days earlier, back when my price was lower.
I then wanted to acknowledge the other
nominees; it had, after all, been a real honour just to be
mentioned in the same breath as such fine writers. But on my
little crib sheet I'd only written down their first names:
Nancy, Gene, Walter, John, and Paul. I filled in the last names
as I spoke: "Nancy Kress, Gene Wolfe, Walter Jon Williams "
and then I froze. I looked at the scrawled names "John" and
"Paul" and was only able to think of "George" and "Ringo." I
recovered after a moment "John Barnes and Paul Park" and
went on to thank editors Stanley Schmidt at Analog and
John Silbersack and Christopher Schelling at HarperPrism, and
agent Richard Curtis. I then commented that although the room
was filled with authors, agents, and editors, the hardest job in
all of publishing is being the spouse of a writer (an observation
that got a big round of applause), and so I closed by thanking my
wife, Carolyn Clink.
The Nebula trophy itself is surprisingly heavy block of Lucite
nine inches tall, four inches wide, and four inches deep (like
Arthur C. Clarke's monolith, the ratio of its width to its height
is two-squared to three-squared). Embedded in the Lucite is a
swirling galaxy of glitter and two polished spherical stones.
One of the stones a large banded agate looks like a Jovian
planet, and the other, smaller stone, orbits it like a too-close
moon, reminiscent of the setting of my novel
William Rotsler, the artist who hand-crafts the Nebula trophies
each year is famous for making them appropriate for the
recipients (last year's best-novel trophy, which went to Greg
Bear for Moving Mars, contained a polished sphere of red
sandstone). The base of the trophy is black, and says in gold
The Science-fiction & Fantasy Writers
Best Novel 1995
The Terminal Experiment
Robert J. Sawyer
Hobson's Choice is the title under which Analog
serialized the novel; that this alternative (and, I think, much
better) title was included pleased both Stanley Schmidt and me
greatly. Nowhere on the trophy does it actually say "Nebula
Award" a fact that prompted writer David Nickle to quip "What
are you trying to pull, Rob?" when he first saw it.
Although the award carries no cash prize, it's already landed me
lucrative foreign sales in Germany, Poland, and Japan (as one
small example of the value of a Nebula,
The Terminal Experiment sold to Japan for an advance US$12,000 greater than
what my last book got in that country). And the win will
doubtless substantially increase my advance on the next book I
sell in the States. More than that, though, it means, as one of
my editors observed, that The Terminal Experiment, a book
I care about very much, will now likely be in print forever.
Winning the Nebula is the biggest thing that's ever happened to
me professionally, and I'm grateful beyond words to all the
writers who rallied around my book.
More Good Reading
Nebula Award Press Release
Chronological list of Best Novel Nebula Winners
Alphabetical list of all authors who have won best-novel Nebulas
Alphabetical list of all novels that have won best-novel Nebulas
Reflections on winning the Nebula 15 years later
Excerpt from The Terminal Experiment